Stage 3 of the Bike Four Peaks was considered the "Queen stage" of this year's race as it rolled 82km over two mountains between Kirchberg and Kaprun (host of the 2002 cross country world championships).
All the beds were taken in Kirchberg, so we backtracked to Lofer to spend the night. This would've been a splendid plan, but the recent flooding and road closures meant the 38km drive turned into over an hour. No big deal right? Except for the fact when we drove by the start line at 8:10 am this morning, there were already hundreds of racers lined up. By the time we had our bikes together and pulled up to the line at 8:30, it was very clear we were going to be starting at the back. Already screwed, we figured we should at least get a warm-up in and hopped on one of the thousands of bike paths in Austria and tried to get the legs fired up for the huge climb up and over a 2000-meter peak to start the day.
As the gun went off at 9:00 am, we stood there for another 30 seconds, waiting before we could start rolling on our bikes. From here, it was go time, Kris [Sneddon], Spencer [Paxson] and I made like a bunch of angry hornets and started hammering up the sidewalks, weaving around hundreds of cyclists and eventually up to the head of the race in 10 minutes time.
Lucky for us, the start was on a wide road and was relatively slow. I looked at Kris and gave him the thumbs up as it looked like we had dodged a bullet. Nope, we got content again and drifted back into about 40th position and then the road turned into a gravel path which was still ok, until three cows got spooked and hopped in the middle of the road, blocking everyone out of the top 30. Spencer made a bold move and rode up the ditch. At the same time, one of the fat cows also moved to the ditch, pushing my teammate into a barb wired fence. With one hand on the cow's ass, and the other one on his handlebar, Spencer pushed the cow out of his way and snuck by. I was cracking up, but also getting pissed at the cows as they weren't getting out of the way.
I remember hearing about Steve Gaffney from Calgary getting kicked in the face one year by a cow he tried to pass on the Bow 80 course and wanted to avoid the same fate. Eventually the cows cooperated and we rode by them, only to have a panicked cow 100ft up the road try to jump out of his pasture. Being a fat cow, he instead went through the fence and hauled all kinds of wire into the middle of the road. All the Euros started yelling "Ashtung".
Once we got through this mess, I looked up to see the lead group over a minute up the road as they hit the first climb. It was still a lot better than the start on stage 1, but we now had our work cut out for us. One thing I have learned really fast down here is that you need to stay in your own pace and trust guys will blow up later in the race as it is too easy to go over your limit with the adrenaline running high. In Euro land, everyone is fit, so sometimes you feel like your not going as fast as you actually are.
Near the top of the climb, I put in a big effort to try and make sure I had a fast group to ride with once we hit the long, flat 35km paved bike path section on the other side of the mountain. I gained about 10 spots, getting close to the top 30, with my teammate Spencer on my tail. Reaching the summit, we came upon snowfield after snowfield, where Spencer used his mounting/dismounting cycle-cross skills to leap across the snow and gain another five spots. He left me in the cold; I tried to gain some time back by riding through a steep snow patch but ended up burying the front wheel and taking a header over the handlebars. I found out the hard way why nobody else was riding the snow.
Heading down the descent, I caught a floundering Euro on a steep section of trail as he went over the handlebars. Seeing he was ok, I started to chuckle a bit, but then hit a large route and cracked my nuts into my seat. This was a bad experience and some riders were soon passing me on the trail for the first time all week as I was holding tears back trying to keep my focus while not worrying too much about having children in the future.
Finally down the descent, I had a fit Euro catch me from behind and from here we started ticking the kilometers away and catching riders one by one. Eventually our group swelled to seven riders, which was great for pace-lining against he headwind as we neared the 65km mark and the final 10km climb to end the day. The base of this climb was up a steep, wet grass ski hill. It was like riding through molasses and sucked away every once of energy we had left.
Hitting the top of this bruiser, we were awarded with another 8km climb up a gravel-logging road to the drop in of the 2002 world championships downhill course. I passed Spencer half way up the climb. He was contending for a spot on the USA Olympic cross country team last year and can rip. This is his first stage race, though, and he hit the wall 3.5 hours into the race today, like so many other riders do on day 3 of such a hard race. He later told me he felt like he was pregnant halfway up the climb and was having hot flashes. Knowing Spencer, he will likely rebound just fine tomorrow and rip up the final three hours of racing we have left on what has been a memorable Euro trip.
The final downhill into Kaprun was a rough trail cutting across cut blocks. I had to shake my arms out a couple times before I hit the bottom as some massive arm pump was going on.
Coming into the finish line, there were again riders right ahead of and behind me as it is always an all out sprint right to the end. Right now, we are all pretty wrecked and in need of some days of R&R. I know I'm starting to crack when I start ordering vanilla sundaes for lunch rather then spinach salads.
Tomorrow is the final stage of what has been a splendid tour of the Alps. It is guaranteed to end with a bang as we will trudge up a 2100-meter peak to top out once again on top of the Austrian World before plummeting down the legendary Wildkogel-Trail into the village of Neukirchen.
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