Home for a few hours

May 30, 2007

Actually, it's just another campground in another unfamiliar European town, but it has almost all the comforts of home-- a place to get off the road and take a coin-op shower, tune the bikes, do a bit of laundry, and in this case, since we are really lucky, find an unguarded wireless signal.

Home really seems to be an abstract term, with the meaning up for interpretation and subject to constant evolution for each individual. Home could be something you own, rent, has a roof, garden, leather couch, TV, or possibly just where you are for a few hours while on the side of the road in an unfamiliar continent. This is a good thing for Mary and I since we have been driving practically non-stop for the past month competing in races around Europe.

The past weeks' destinations included Templice, Czech, for a Saturday race then a quick 800km drive down to an unusual, but well attended Tuesday race in Nalles, Italy, and then back over the Alps to for a high category race in Heubach, Germany, on the following Sunday. Driving and lots of hard racing has been taken up all our time in the dry and dusty spring that has so far prevailed for most of our time here in mainland Europe.

After a bit of a delay at the border where we discovered that not having an international drivers license could actually present a bit of a problem, we really enjoyed our time in the in Czech republic. We were treated so well by the race promoters and staff. The promoters had an English translator on hand to help with the international racers which consisted only of Mary and me, the Chinese women's mountain bike team, and Spaniard Jose Hermida. It was definitely much appreciated since we don't speak Czech, and we have found that their are very few similar crossover words that sound somewhat the same in English.

The course in Czech was pretty urban, but it was held in a remarkable ancient town called Templice, famous for being one of the first places in remembered history to use its local hot springs for medicinal purposes. This helped make up for the lack of a sweet, forested singletrack course that we always hope for. The course designers made the most out of the tiny acreage and put on a fun race that was witnessed by quite a few people who probably wouldn't have bothered to watch if the race was somewhere more remote.

Mary definitely had her work cut out for her. In addition to the usual solid Czech field, the Chinese federation was in attendance. The Chinese women's mountain bike team has been at races all over Europe this spring, and at least one of the three women on their roster has been a safe bet for the podium at almost every race. Of course their power was clearly proven at the most recent World Cup in Houffalize where Ren Chengyuan won her first World Cup in a sprint finish over the formerly untouchable Gunn Rita Dahle. The influx of the Chinese women has been interesting to watch. They are a class act, quickly absorbing the knowledge necessary to win races, but maintaining a different approach with their all-Chinese style. They have stepped into the world of mountain biking with big talent and affirmed that the sport is something that is appreciated and respected by a world-wide audience .

Mary went out hard in Czech, working on her World Cup start, and by the end of the first 12 minute lap, had strung out the field pretty well. This was a particularly fun race to watch as the course was short and contained some abrupt technical descents. It was great to see Mary going big and riding every tough line-serious stuff that made a lot of the guys I was racing get off their bikes. Mary was just ripping!!! By the end of a dizzying seven laps, Mare ended up a hard-earned third place.

The men's field was once again highly contested as it always seems to be in Czech, and for that matter, over the majority of the planet as far as I have seen. Here there were around 100 guys, several I recognized from the World Cups as well as loads of hungry up-and-comers. It was sweet to get a spot on the front line courtesy of my UCI ranking, and I rolled up to start next to imported Spanish ringer Jose Hermida. It was nice to have a chance to make a few jokes and enjoy some light conversation at the line rather than just be elbow to elbow with guys silently fidgeting with their heart rate monitors. Still, of course, I can appreciate how seriously the Czech guys take their racing, it is tough as sh*t and at the end of the day is no laughing matter.

I survived the dusty, swarming pack start with elbows out and in good position and settled into my ride. It was nice that the course dished up some mean technical drops and a few rooty off-camber traverses where I could make some time since it was all about staying on the wheel in front of you during the extended pavement climb and other non-tech points on the track. I rode well and ended up 10th on the day which was good for one UCI point. All in all a good effort and a good day although I found myself wondering how the racing was going in the States.

After sampling a few world-renowned Czech beers seated outdoors in an ancient tavern, Mary and I hiked into the dusk through the quiet park that had so recently hosted the frantic energy of the race. Our "race day grungy" RV awaited in an odd, but quiet camp site outside a run-down Czech Olympic building that was left over from a time well past. After eight or so hours of lying down and sweating out the remains of the caffeine and adrenaline still coursing through our bodies we began our drive south through the back roads (not wanting to push the no international drivers license thing) towards Italy.

Mary and I always try to see a little something extra in our travels even when B-ining towards the next event, so we will typically push every day to the last second just to take some sweet little back road and make sure we don't rush by everything. So it was in typical fashion that we arrived in Nalles, Italy, just in time for the managers' meeting on the Monday night before a category one Tuesday race. According to our schedule, there should have been ample time for a quick pre-ride and dinner and then early to bed, but unfortunately the managers meeting morphed into an an elaborate ceremony in which Mary found herself up on an outdoor stage in the village center with the top women contenders to receive her start plate. This was one long, strange, but also quite entertaining ceremony for getting a number plate on the bike, unique to say the least. Good thing I had the camera on hand cause only the pictures could explain this scene.

Race day came early the next morning and we were both super happy to find some friends to feed Mary for her race so I could have the time to treat myself like a pro for a change and warm up properly. One little loophole in our team program is not having extra support on race day, so we will often have to feed one another or rely on friends or even strangers to pass up bottles. This definitely causes some detrimental stress especially at these critical races but in defense of this tactic, it typically works well enough, comes in on budget and best of all has proven to be a great way to reach out to the bike community and meet new friends. Huge thanks go out from Mary and I to all those who have helped!!!

I still had to watch and shoot a few photos of Mary as she gave a big effort to take the hole shot out of the village and into the long yet mercifully switchbacked climb ahead of the stacked field. As the battle transpired, I headed to the shade of our RV and began my race prep. By the time I was headed to the line for my start, Mary had come through to log a solid fifth place on the day. Even before I had the chance to congratulate Mary on her efforts, she was working my feed zone as I came through on the first of seven tough laps.

I ended up having a puncture in the steep descent on the first lap and even though I made a quick trip through the tech zone for a wheel change, this was all it took to become miserably bogged up on the second lap. Seconds in racing are always critical especially at the start and being caught behind the mistakes of 100 riders makes for some pretty slow riding. Results notwithstanding, I was happy to successfully battle it out with several tough guys who had also succumbed to mechanicals.

Mary and I barely had a night to enjoy the sweet landscape of the South Tyrol region before we had to head back over the alps through the Bremmer pass to Germany. We were heading to the first high category race of the year Bike the Rock in Heubach, Germany. This is one tough race, the course itself is a single one shot climb followed by a single steep downhill. This course is more a fitness test of one's ability to climb on the bike rather than anything to do with mountain biking. The impressive field of racers in attendance is really what made the day so tough. Germany seems more and more every year to be the epicenter of mountain biking in Europe. Being central, competitors come from many neighboring countries to compete at their races lured by the solid competition, media exposure as well as the added bonus of racing in front of enthusiastic spectators.

After our prior weeks of big travel and racing, Mary and I definitely struggled to be in Heubach with our A game. In fact I would say that we probably didn't bring it. Of course, in Europe anything less, and you can expect to suffer a bit. I did my best to support Mary through her start and watched her pin it for the hole shot in a very tight and sketchy start and begin to have a really good day. I then retreated to the comfortable necessity of the trainer while Mary continued to suffer it out with the international a field. Just as I had completed my warm up, Mary was back at the RV with a fresh, but not entirely satisfactory 11th place under her belt. Though I know she was disappointed, in true team player style, she was reserved about her own result and all about getting my bottle feed together.

To say that this course did not suit me would be an understatement. I was out to just to compete here without giving myself a complex I had already just chalked it up to being a hard training day. After six of eight laps of the "big hill," I was pulled out of the race and awarded a 50th place finish out of 120 while the race leaders sped by needing us out of the way to continue their sturdy pace without getting bogged down.

There has definitely been some tough racing in Europe this spring and still we are definitely looking forward to another month of racing here since it is just so incredible to be part of the most competitive XC racing on the planet. Some days seem tough but we wouldn't trade it for anything--just to have the opportunity to race here and flavor the scene in so many distinctly different cultures while still within the comforts of the tribe of the bike is just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Up next we are heading to Great Britain for a weekend of racing in the infamous Sherwood Forest. And then back to mainland Europe--this time for a national race in in Plouha, France.

As far as feeling like we are at home while basically pulled over on the side of the road, I am pretty sure this is just a phase that will pass as naturally as it came into being. Though I must admit I am not looking forward to that day since it is a beautiful thing if you can be together with your partner, and be focused enough on a common goal to be content staying in just about any old place you have a minute to relax and rest up before heading to your next destination.

Until the next wireless signal,

Mary and Mike

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MTB "super-couple", Mary McConneloug and Mike Broderick live together, train together, travel together and race together. They also share this diary on Cyclingnews.

Follow their adventures as they race the World Cup cross country circuit throughout 2009. Enjoy the unique, professional racing style of these two accomplished racers and world travelers.