Houffalize, Offenburg and Madrid, May 15, 2008
The anticipation of traveling in Europe for several months on end to race bikes is always a bit daunting, and this year proved to be no exception. After returning from a two-week season opening race trip in Puerto Rico and Venezuela, Mary and I spent a BUSY week at our East Coast home base sorting papers, contacting friends/ sponsors, and equipping our bikes with the latest '08 gear. We really had to touch on a bit of everything including some serious training all aimed at getting everything in line for the World Cup races and another significant travel event. In the end we did all that was humanly possible before assembling a jumble of critical things into our huge overweight bike bags and paying dearly to lug them onto the plane.
This is our fifth year of renting an RV for an extended bout of European racing and this time it actually felt a bit like returning home. Our friends from the RV rental company (www.rv-rental-germany.com) meet us at the Munich airport to help out with the incredible mass of gear and once again get us started on the right foot for another Euro journey. Moving into any car for two-plus months is always a bit claustrophobic at first, but the convenience of having everything you need cooking facilities, bathroom, bike storage, etc, all at arms reach makes it pretty convenient. Still its pretty realistic to say that with two people living in a car you are always somehow in the way of the another other unless you are outside. Still, for better or worse, this is our chosen style, it works out really well for attending and travelling to the European races and is something that we really enjoy, most of the time.
Mary and I have often found ourselves at our best while on the go and living without the distractions and the sweet, yet somehow cumbersome comforts of the real world. The simplicity of a vehicle to live in, and just enough equipment and gear to handle the job seems to be our most effective strategy for attending races . We tested this theory once again on our most current leg of the journey, competing in three World Cups in as many weeks. We began in Houffalize, Belgium, for the season opener, then on to nearby Offenburg, Germany, and most recently in the not so near by Madrid, Spain.
The World Cup in Houffalize is a classic mountain bike race and the thousands of fans that once again showed up for this event proved that attending a cross country race is something that is considered worthy to do with your Sunday in Belgium.
The racing... we were happy to have Mary battle her way back into the top 20 after a tough start. The radically steep paved start offered many riders the opportunity to go beyond their red line and snag a good position before blowing apart on the selective singletrack and effectively blocking up the rest of the field. This quickly pulled the women's pack apart into individual riders, Those out of the top 10 standing in an ill-tempered line, bike in hand, watiting their chance to run down the first perfectly rideable slick singletrack. After the hectic start mary steadily moved her way up through the field taking time to be a bit safe and even considerate while going 100% in her sportsmanship type way. I was happy to see her into the top 20 looking strong and riding well on the penultimate lap. Mary was able to close in to a 19th place finish at the end of a well ridden though in her own words "conservative and safe" day of racing.
The men's race was pretty well attended with 270 guys! and unfortunately around 150 managed to beat me up the incredibly steep paved start loop to the first singletrack. The Houffalize start is always a bit of a disaster and with the huge numbers of riders funneling into a singletrack chute it never fails to cause an unspeakable backup. It's not really racing at this point - just waiting to advance while the leaders are busy riding away. In typical fashion this frustrates more than a few to the point of ducking the ropes and having at a bit of cheating to advance their position. Personally I, along with the majority of of the respectable athletes are all about acting in a sportsman like way and respecting the rules of the sport even in these ridiculous conditions. I finished the first lap in 165th position and eventually advanced to a wholly unsatisfying but in my own feeling pretty well ridden 111th on the day.
We were super lucky to be able to draw support from the tribe of the bike once again and sort out our tech zone support with the help of our Belgian friends Michel Olivier and Pierre. These guys have the credentials and skills to support the best, but are presently working full time and took a vacation day just to come and stand in our feed zone, pretty cool of them and actually completely essential for us to be at our best in the races!!!. Thanks to them and all those who have and may be yet to help in our future races. Mary and I would have to be the first to admit that we may not have the most solid support program lined up beforehand at all the races but we sure do get to meet a lot of great people along the way.
It took several days to recover from racing our first World Cup and we stayed a few days in our favorite remote campground near Houffalize. We slowly caught up, still fighting the lingering jet lag while stretching our legs in the beautiful ardennes region of belgium. We were somewhat astounded and very lucky to have sunshine and dry conditions to appreciate the classic rolling hills of this area whose every little pass seems steeped in cycling tradition.
Offenburg was in the grips of a sweet blooming spring and we were happy to experience it more on the side of warm and sunny compared to the deep dark and disastrous black forrest rain event the year prior. Mary and I luxuriated in renting a flat for three nights where we could do some laundry, spread out and take real showers! We were stoked to have our expert pit crew drive to support us all the way down from Belgium and add another member Ronald Z. to the all star pit crew to to help us out on race day. Mary and I pretty much enjoyed the luxuries of the best equipped team here .
The races... Mary was happy to ride the abruptly steep drops and prove that crashing or having a bad day at a particular race venue in the past does not mean that you are doomed to the same fate on the following year. Mary finished 16th on the day though I think she was more happy to have conquered her fears of the course from the year prior than anything else to do with racing the other women. I watched several of the men get off and run down the fearsome "Wolf's drop" during my race so I was extra proud of Mary for bombing down that gnarly little chute as well as handily negotiating all the other technical pieces on her sweet little IMX (Seven's titanium and carbon hardtail) lap after lap!!!
I found myself immediately out of the chase for a top spot due to losing time in the start cluster but came together with some pretty solid riders for a good old battle nonetheess. Having competed with many of these athletes year after year their is definitely some satisfaction and pride associated with beating certain guys with whom you have a history or who are their county's top rider, etc. Really any motivation to get that one extra spot is not overlooked and in the World Cups there are so many fast riders you could have a hell of a battle just trying to break the top 100 on certain days. I came up with a 90th spot in Offenburg and felt that I had a good ride though the result was less than completely satisfying.
On the way down to Madrid we had ample opportunity to do the math on the present diesel fuel price and our current consumption situation. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our RV gets around 6.5 kilometers a liter (around 15 mpg) when driven conservatively. The down side would be that one dollar is presently worth 0.6 euros so the 80 euros we spent to drive 400 kilometers translates roughly to US$130 to drive 245 miles. Ouch!!!! Another disturbing fact we have been living with is that the price of diesel fuel in Germany is 1.40 euro per liter so translate that to US terms and you are looking at $7.90/ gallon - a big ouch!!!! It's a definite wake up call for what's in the future for all of us who burn petroleum products.
In order to cut costs we have adapted our strategy in a few ways including taking advantage of pulling over in small towns to sleep at night rather than paying for the luxury of a campground and the other going for the refillable five-iter plastic jug of wine direct from the producers rather than the over-rated marked up grocery outlet bottled stuff. A tough compromise you might think, but we have been pleasantly surprised that both of these moves have brought up closer to the pulse of Europe and have exposed us to many new and interesting people.
Having raced in Madrid's "Casa de Campo" three times prior , we knew that this city park was not where we wanted to train out of all week. Instead we took our time with the solid 1750 km drive from Offenburg to Madrid including some sweet training stops in the eastern Pyrenees outside Banyoles and another near Mont Blanc, southeast of Lleida, Spain. We came across quiet epic roads almost by mistake throughout our trip. With an infrastructure of pavement like we found all through France and Spain it is pretty clear what all the road riding and racing fuss is about over here.
Racing mountain bikes in Madrid's largest municipal park was a whole different experience from our latest experiences in northern Europe flat, fast singletrack, smooth enough to ride without ever letting up on the cadence though marbly and slippery enough to necessitate a constant focus. Dust, a few short steep climbs and the pack-oriented racing were once again the defining features of the racing here.
"I was super motivated to have a good day," recalled Mary, "but after a scary fast start on the dusty hard as concrete packed trail falling back to 30+ 'cause I didn't want to crash... [I] had to re-adjust goals. [I] moved forward, head down on big ring sections. Super focused, I rode well, moving up to finish 15th - not exactly the podium I had hoped for, but [I was] glad to finish strong without crashing on the hard packed slippery gravel. Big Thanks to my small block eight Kendas tires for their incredible traction on these dry, slippery conditions!! Looking back on the day, I remain happy to have had good fitness and a safe fast ride."
"Sitting in with a group on the flat doubletrack, taking an occasional pull and making a move before filing into the singletrack are the main memories of my race here," reflected Mike. "The non technical course brought strategy into the fold here. This day was a a battle between the riders more than one with any elements of the course and was thus a whole different race. It seemed pretty strange to finish the same 90th place here though, beating and being beaten by a very different group of riders. Pretty consistent."
Mary and I have a running joke about transitioning into "full timers" with no home base, just traveling around and living permanently in an RV. Judging by our past styles it seems pretty feasible and on the good days, it seems like a solid idea. Just a mission, a vehicle, and enough gear to handle the job; however, lately it has been looking like the price and availability of diesel fuel will help eliminate the allure as we go through these next few years. It seems more likely we will become "full timers" on the bikes instead. Now that would be something to talk about!
If you have the opportunity, consider attempting some of your travels and chores without using the car and take a moment to think about the possibilities of what you can accomplish with your own power.
All the best,
Michael Broderick and Mary McConneloug
Team Kenda/Seven Cycles