June 14, 2007
Anyone who knows bike racers understands that there is one thing that trumps all others in order of importance. Any guesses? Well...that one important thing is routine. Yes, we are creatures of habit. We love our consistency, our routine. It keeps us somewhat grounded, though I am not sure that we are a very grounded bunch. It helps us feel as though we are in some semblance of control - that our world is not reeling off its axis.
Our days are spent waking up and tinkering with bikes (God forbid those aren't set up correctly down to the last millimeter). My husband has often referred to me as the princess and the pea. "I know my saddle is off," I mutter. "My handlebar height doesn't seem right". "Sure," he states. "Well, does it look off to you?" I squeal. "Uuuhhh...looks the same as it did the last time you asked," he mutters. He knows he can't win that conversation, no matter what he says.
We eat and must have the correct foods to eat. Some need soy, no dairy; others chicken, no beef; rice, can't do pasta; apples, no citrus....the list goes on. Don't even get me started regarding race day and race fuel....holy hell does that get complicated. More important than food is coffee. Absolutely every bike racer worth his or her salt drinks coffee. We don't drink that crummy Maxwell House either. It has to be from beans grown at the right altitude and roasted at the right temperature from the correct part of the globe; it has to be made just right, usually strong, but never burnt or bitter.
Besides eating, drinking, and tinkering with our bikes, we also ride our bikes, and we are pretty damn picky about that too. "No, I can't ride with you today! I have to do three x 22.3542 minutes of hill climbing at 170.5-177.25 HR or between 243-255 watts," I tell my friend. God forbid we don't get our workout in just right.
After eating, drinking, tinkering, and riding, we like to say that we are busy, but don't let us fool you, we really don't do much. Well, maybe we take a nap here or there. God forbid we have to walk or do any lifting with our arms, our arms don't work very well (kind of like a Tyrannosaurus Rex). A trip to the mall will make us sore for days. You see, our poor fragile legs (yah, the legs that can pedal 400 miles/week without problem) cannot withstand the pounding on the concrete floors of the mall.
So....with all of our particularities, our habits, our routines, can you even begin to imagine the implications of racing in Europe? We all long to go, the racing doesn't get any better, the fans don't get any crazier, but Europe! Aaahhhh...sometimes you just have to stop and "Smell the Edelweiss"!
"Oh my god! My luggage didn't make it, my bike isn't here! Damn Heathrow! Now we have to get to Offenburg, Germany. How am I going to get my luggage, my bike? I have to race Sunday, it is already Thursday and I don't speak German!" That's how my trip started. Well, maybe I am exaggerating a bit, I am not sure I was that crazy. Thirty-six hours later, I had my bike and luggage and was riding a sweet course with crazy drops. The kind you teeter at the top, hold your breath, lean way back off the rear tire of the bike, grab as much rear brake as possible, pray, close your eyes (although, I am not sure that helps) and roll it.
The race was fast approaching, and the course was really awesome. I did my best to survive on the nutrition front. It took me two days to figure out the German word for chicken. Even then I couldn't find any. I quickly realized that my pre-race oatmeal and egg breakfast was not going to happen. It seemed I would be fueled by wurst and schnitzel; who needs chicken anyhow! I had managed to stay away from the beer…mostly. Boy is that tough, Germans know how to do beer, and they serve it in one liter mugs, and it is good!
Race day came and went. The course was crazy, but crazier than the soaking wet root infested, muddy, steep course, were the women. Over 100 crazed, rabid women - I still can't get used to it. It is an awesome, but terrifying scene; elbows and bodies flying, bikes crashing, screaming in various languages, drooling, foaming, etc. So, if you can't beat them, join them I quickly decided. Unfortunately, my legs didn't have the same reaction. It was a tough race, but I survived to have another go at it. That is the lovely thing about racing, there is always another one down the pipeline.
After a few days off, it was time to go do a smaller race in a quaint little Austrian town called Windhaag bei Perg. Michael had flown over to join me and my traveling buddy Nina. Our Euro miniwagon was so overloaded, we warned him that if he brought more than a carry on, we were strapping him and his luggage to the roof. He showed up with two small bags, thankfully. We all crammed into the poor vehicle and made our way to Windhaag.
In my infinite wisdom, I decided to e-mail the race promoter for lodging suggestions in Windhaag, Austria. He quickly replied, and said we were taken care of - all we had to do was show up in Windhaag and ask for Harald and tell them who I was. Hmm...ok…hell, we have traveled across the globe, how hard can it be to find Harald in Windhaag?
Our car chugged along, and we arrived in Windhaag while singing various tunes from The Sound of Music. We arrived at the town center, and Nina and Michael were giving me the look. "Ok, now what?" Michael asked. "Ahhh…we need Harald," I said. So, I got out of the car and walked up to a group of guys setting up for the race. "Spechenzie English," I blabbered (You see, besides knowing seven words for various meats, the word for potato, and the phrase for "s**t weather", I don't know any German).
This mustered up a lot of looking around and talking in German amongst the guys. Then I said, "I am Sara, I am looking for Harald", "Oh, Sara," they responded. After some muttering and gesturing, we were told to follow someone to our accommodation. Off we went, winding into the Austrian countryside. After a few minutes, we took a left turn, and before us lay an Austrian Dairy Farm. This is where we would spend our next four nights. It was really cool. Breakfast consisted of fresh dairy from the farm and we named our innkeeper Maria. After all, that had to be her name…well, I guess it didn't. On our last day we found out her name was Edith…though she will always be Maria to us.
The race course in Windhaag was as crazy as the race in Germany - steep, rocky, rooty, wet, and fun. There was a section where you had to go off a drop and through a hole in a huge rock. They put up a scary sign that said 'Hollenrock', with a gremlin on it - a nice warning. During my pre-ride I finally got the nerve to try it and ended up smashing into the side of the rock wall and landing head first, on my back, in the middle of this 'Hollenrock'. I found myself lying head first down this steep pitch staring up at a rock ceiling. After I scraped myself and my bike up, I quickly decided that I was going to run that section during the race!
I had a good warm up race day morning, Maria (err…Edith) fed us a great breakfast, and I was ready to go. The Chinese women showed up in their skin suits with underwear, and I knew it was going to be a hard race. From the gun the pace was fast and furious, I was riding in descent position, coming down a steep pitch half way through the race when I had a significant bike malfunction; the type of malfunction that just can't easily be fixed. That was the end of my racing for the day. Well, so much for Windhaag…
The next day, with lots of help from a local bike shop owner, my husband fixed my bike up. "Is my saddle at the right height now," I ask. "Is it level and forward enough. I didn't bring my measurements and plumb line…?" Oh well, no time for that, we had to press forward. We said good bye to our cute little milk farm in lieu of a villa in Northern Italy near Lake Garda. This area was supposed to be nice and it was half way to Champery Switzerland, the site of the next World Cup.
After what seemed like forever, we rolled into what would be our village for the next two nights - Dolce, Italy. It was a tiny town, and every guy within a five mile radius came out to see me and Nina. It was hilarious. We were cruising down 'main' street when Michael yelled, "this is it." I looked over and saw a dilapidated crumbling wall with a huge wooden door. "Yah, whatever, keep rolling," I said. I thought he was joking. He wasn't.
At that point a lady appeared from the big wooden door - this was the place. It definitely didn't look like the pictures from the website. We found out that our new innkeeper's name was truly Maria, so we affectionately named her Maria II. We were shown up to our accommodations, and I quickly realized that Maria II only spoke Italian and French. None of us spoke any Italian and I spoke un peu de Francais. Communication was interesting, but we managed. The place was dilapidated though very interesting. We quickly realized that the true inhabitor of our villa was Wally the Rat, who had helped himself to our bread, and god knows what else, the first night.
It was soon time to repack the car and head off to Champery. Maria II communicated to me that her villa was built in the 800s. She hung around to watch us repack our poor vehicle and all she could do was exclaim, "Mama Mia!"
The drive to Champery was beautiful and uneventful, until my husband unknowingly tried to blow through the Italian Boarder Patrol. Oddly dressed men started waving wildly and flagged us over. We were reprimanded and asked to show our passports. I was waiting for them to make us unpack our overstuffed Eurowagon, but thank god, they just yelled a bit more before waving us through.
Champery was amazing. It looked as if someone had pulled down a stage curtain with amazing mountains painted all over it. The views were spectacular. There was no time to take that in however, as we had to unpack, check in and ride the course. Upon check in, we knew we were in trouble when again only French was spoken. To make matters worse, we had to explain that even though the reservation was for two people, there were now three of us staying there. I heard the dreaded word 'supplement' come out of a bunch of fast French babble. Just wait till we get the bill for this place, I thought.
Again, another gnarly root infested, chute laden fun course. I could not wait to race it. The pre-race food situation had not improved too much from Germany though, as I found myself eating a huge plate of roast beef with tarter sauce and french-fries. At least it was two nights before the race. I promised myself I would do better the next night!
Race morning came and I was ready to go, except that our pre-race breakfast left a lot to be desired. "My coffee tastes like pine needles," I cried out to Nina. "Can't be that bad…oh God it is," she said. To make matters worse, the place smelled like really bad stinky cheese, the smelly feet kind of stinky cheese. We managed to salvage breakfast and move on with our race day preparation.
Before I knew it, it was time for call up. I was in the back and itching to race up towards the front. Unfortunately, the 100 or so other women (I mean rabid beasts) were too. The gun went off, and girls are crashing into each other even before they made it off the pavement. I clipped out of my pedals to avoid one crash and then flung some girl over onto her side of the pavement, before I really got going. The race was really hard but the course was great fun. I was still feeling a bit off, but managed to place somewhere in the 70s. I was a bit disappointed with my placing, but happy to have been able to race.
So, again it was time to pack up the Eurowagon and head towards the airport. I have to admit that we all enjoyed a nice dinner and a couple glasses of wine before leaving Champery. We all deserved it after a tough but amazing three weeks of racing and traveling.
Racing and traveling in Europe is really difficult for many reasons, but also amazing and wonderful. Sometimes, you have to just go with the flow and remember…you just have to stop and "Smell the Edelweiss"!