Starting the hard way

Frankfurt, Germany, May 11, 2007

I can hardly believe three weeks have passed since we arrived here in Europe. We have been blessed with a beautiful blooming spring, with temperatures closer to mid-summer, which is definitely unusual for this time of year but has been great for training and living out of our little RV!

We have already driven a good bit of kilometers here in Europe, starting, as usual, in Munich with a visit to our friend and RV rental specialist Michael Braun. We packed our substantial lot of equipment aboard one of his sweet modern RVs and headed directly to our first race in Oldenzaal, Netherlands.

Though we only had a few days to make the 700 kilometre drive, build up and race prep the bikes, handle the logistics to get ready for race day, our previous familiarity with Europe and the ease of the RV way of traveling helped us arrive fresh and ready on race day.

We arrived to contest the first race of the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) cup series and were glad to have half a day to dial in the complex, loose, big ring only course.

Short version, I ended up winning and mike finished ninth in the hot, dusty, but still well attended conditions. Of course the majority of the Netherlands are super flat but all the races we have contested here are full of fun single track and ingenious courses that push the limits of all the riders.

After a few days of recovery with some good training rides near a national park north of Arnhem, we headed south to Houffalize, Belgium for the first World Cup round of the season. Mike and I were glad for the return of this classic MTB race. We have made our way through this area many times, not only to race, but also whenever we have the chance to get in some good training rides between races.

The quaint, stone-built town of Houffalize is nestled in a deep valley, between the jagged hills of the Ardennes, and has the perfect atmosphere for a bike race. No doubt one of the best places to hold a round of the World Cup series.

Being creatures of habit we returned to our favorite local campground, just far enough down the river outside of town to avoid the influx of the thick Belgian crowds that show in force without fail to watch the race. The Belgian people really embrace the cycling culture and this feels great as an athlete. The response of the fans is exhilarating as you make a good line or pass a competitor.

The inspirational chanting on the steep climbs somehow makes you dig to a deeper level and also takes a bit of the sting out of the legs. It seems that the energy of the people is contagious and at a well attended race you can go to a place with your performance that would otherwise not be possible.

The competition this year was typical but still a bit staggering. The numbers of competitors in the elite fields was bordering on ridiculous, with 245 elite men and 124 women! Mike and I knew it was going to be tough to make it through the steep, wide pavement start loop and into the narrow singletrack while maintaining our good start positions.

Mike and I both had pretty good legs throughout the race, suffered it out pretty good in the heat and finished without any major problems, but unfortunately not with the results we were hoping for. The new more difficult start had everything to do with this. We were both unprepared (or just unwilling) to grind up the impossibly steep two kilometre (16 per-cent gradient) pavement climb at full throttle, right from the start gun. This gave many start fast then blow up and bog down the rest of the field type racers a chance to do their thing.

Even a slight hesitation or a bad line can cost you time and at the World Cups a few seconds are difficult to come by. Still, in the interest of an overall good day of racing, Mike and I have trouble giving every ounce of energy at the start, knowing we need to gauge the output for the whole race. Though in this case we spent the rest of the race paying for our conservative tactics.

I weeded my way forward throughout the women's race, climbing the steeps with power and descending smoothly, to finish 16th. My legs felt awesome and the bike was perfect, but I lacked those few seconds of incredible suffering at the start that I needed to make that podium spot I was hoping for.

Although familiar, the level of competition seems to have been upped another notch. The women from China have really continued to step it up, with U23 World Champion, Ren Chengyuan, out-sprinting the formerly untouchable Gunn-Rita for the win. Margarita Fullana took third, Sabine Spitz fourth and Jingjing Wang in fifth.

I am glad there are five more World Cups to contest and looking forward to some intense racing at smaller venues for the next month... building it up!

Mike rode a strong race but suffered as I did in the start. Still, he kept focused throughout the choking dust and turmoil caused by the enormous field of riders. With 245 men filing into single track, there was unfortunately quite a bit of time that Mike spent literally standing off the bike, waiting his turn to enter the single track. He pushed forward completing laps even faster as he passed riders or they dropped out on their own accord.

He finally completed the five lap race in a painful two and a half hours. Though it was far from where his sights were set, I was proud of Mike and his mental resolve to make the best of his bad start. From 157th on the first lap, he moved up 60 positions to finish 99th.

Mike is not one to take advantage of the flimsy course tape and find an illegal line, he prefers to tough it out with the majority of the field while some others will cut the course to advance their positions illegally. In the heat of the moment some riders do not respect the rules or the brotherhood of the racers and choose to cut the course to find a better but not rightfully earned result. We know that sometimes it is not the result that really matters or the points, but that we are out there, honestly giving our best.

We are currently in a small campground south-west of Frankfurt in the quiet hills stationed at a campground that has wireless internet connection (a first) and is surrounded by perfect hilly paved training loops.

We're glad to finally have the rare chance to check e-mails and plan some logistics while we are on the road. I wish we could spend more time in this quiet area, but we have to hit the road in about five hours, which is just enough time for the laundry to dry and to get our training in. We are currently on our way to the Czech Republic for a race this Saturday and we are still 700 kilometres away!

Mike and I have planned to compete in three UCI ranked races in the next 10 days, with plenty of kilometers of driving in between. This block of time will see us travel to the Czech Republic to Italy then backup to Germany.

It will give us a welcome chance to train up our racing. We are both looking forward to the opportunity to brush up on the excruciating and all important start that cannot be trained in any better way than on race day.

We are continually grateful for the support to race our bikes over here. Thanks to you all for your support and interest in our program!

All the best,
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.