Mary and I were back to familiar surroundings for three weeks of bike racing and training in mainland Europe. After round two of the World Cup in England, we flew into Munich where we were picked up by our trusty RV renting friends at Braun Reisemobile. Within a matter of hours, we were tucked into a sleek, six speed RV, small enough to manage on the often tiny back roads of Europe and equipped with all the features to make the perfect race attack vehicle.
There was little time to do much other than build up the bikes and get in a quick recovery spin before we headed west. Hops, wheat and yellow rapeseed (oil) plants flourished in the fields of the rural landscape alongside farmsteads featuring Bavaria's traditional spring bounty of white asparagus.
We arrived to Offenburg, host town of cross country World Cup #3 and fell into the normal methodic preparation for World Cup race day - cleaning, tuning, eating, sleeping, rest, discussing strategy and building up to the event in general while trying to stay relaxed at the same time.
As the hours counted down to race day, we felt the familiar increase of nervy anticipation that is so familiar with the big competitions. Though stressful in its own right having the one minded focus of high priority competition helps to take the mind off all those other little nagging thoughts of obligations that accompany the normal daily grind.
Over the past five years, the Offenburg World Cup has grown to be a staple, certainly one of the finest cross country specific World Cup venues on the circuit. On the order of 20,000 people in attendance made for thick crowds of festive mountain bike enthusiasts. Multi-national cheers amplified by on-site beer vendors encouraged an energetic competition and had even the pack fodder feeling like super stars.
This year's race day came with dry conditions that muted out some of the gnarlier technical aspects, increased the speed and swung the advantage away from bike handling skills towards all out power. The impression that this event makes on the town is clear evidence that in Germany mountain bike racing is serious business, a professional sport where the public is up to date and interested to come out and spectate if they are not too busy out riding themselves.
Mary, in her own opinion, had a smooth, somewhat measured ride on race day and her eventual 30th place finish was hard fought. Watching the action, I sensed that her ride could have been a top 20 or better with almost the same effort and a little more luck at key points .
The women's field has become visibly more competitive, often with the top contenders finishing seconds apart which makes any mistake or moment of hesitation all the more costly to the final outcome.
The "modern World Cup format" that now has the women's races contested in under 1:30 and the men's under 1:45 has also brought a significant difference to the feel of the racing. The overall feel is certainly still all about mountain biking but in a format that requires fitness and explosive power more similar to cyclo-cross than the standard cross country racing we came up competing in.
The day after the race brought the typical whole body hangover feeling, the after effects from the overindulgence and abuse that we so readily put ourselves through in the height of the competition. Another race in the books and gone with it the excitement and one minded focus that had so nicely cloaked our never ending "to do" list kept the stressors out of mind.
Our thoughts now returned to obligations and pressures of daily life along with the feeling of being another day behind in all our tasks to keep our team aspirations on track. Luckily for us, the bike is also a great remedy for stress. Typically a short spin takes the edge off and allows proper perspective to be re-established or at least lets us come to better terms with the impossibilities of accomplishing everything ambitiously we set out to.
Our next plans brought us to the mountains surrounding Schladming, Austria, where we attended the 13th annual Alpentour Trophy, a four-day stage race including 125 miles (250km) and nearly 25,000 feet (8,300 meters) of climbing. We were both excited at the prospect of competing in this epic stage race, so excited that I failed to fully contemplate the ramifications of combining the injury that I had been racing through for the past weeks with a challenge of this magnitude.
That seemingly minor pre-riding mishap at the Dalby Forest World Cup track two weeks prior, where I stepped a foot hard off the bike with enough force to (hopefully just) strain some of the pelvis stabilizing ligaments was not actually all that minor. Somehow I found myself guided by my own questionable mental attitude to participate in the race and just tough it out - unfortunately to no good results.
The Alpentour Trophy rides like a climber's dream and the simplicity of the course conditions over the majority of the race made the competition all the more demanding. Group tactics played a major role, which is not all that typical for us though here we found it key to lessen the pain inflicted by the hour-plus smooth fire road climbs we were presented with. This type of open riding would have been a great opportunity to enjoy the panorama, but as racing demands we tended to the competition at hand, and fought hard to complete the vertical challenges of the track as quickly as possible each day.
The race highlighted the massive elevation changes that seem hard to avoid in the areas surrounding Schladming though it typically avoided singletrack of any type. The tracks seemed to go up forever and once we summited, the descents bombed down wide roads that made us feel as if we had brought along too much bike for the job even with our lightly built 29er hard tails.
Mary had it in her head that this was an event to be ridden for fitness and not raced fully to exhaustion, so she went in pretty conservatively for the first stages and conserved enough to feel like going hard on the final day. As we warmed up together and talked race strategy on the morning of the final stage, she was excited to try and cap off her solid performances including three second place finishes so far at the event with a stage win. I was still in the game mostly since not finishing the job I started seemed to much like quitting to remove it from the options list.
Mary rode to a convincing stage win on day four, opening her eyes wider to the style of multi-day racing, She perhaps only fully realized by the final stage that she is capable of handling the unique challenges and even wining the most difficult mountain bike stage races. I, on the other hand, was considerably less stoked by the time I made my way back to the venue after the final stage, in intense pain, and frustrated about my condition, I "B lined" it for the comfort of the RV just before the finish straight where I proceeded to lie flat in the shade for a good while and contemplate what the f*!@ just happened.
Mountain bike stage racing requires a supreme effort over a big number of hours that cover a vast area. These extremes combine to make a substantial impact on the psyche and leave a lasting impression. The Alpentour Trophy was a new experience full of lessons and difficulties where we came, we saw, and we learned a lot. It was clear to see that a good bit would need to be done differently from our cross country training and racing approach to optimize for an event like this. Perhaps an even more important consideration for stage racing is team structure, ideally having help doing everything except pushing the pedals would be the most effective.
Big respect is due to Gerhard Schonbacher, the mastermind/promoter of the Alpentour Trophy, for a great job of assembling and hosting what is a unique and special event. It proved to be a tremendous test of pure bike fitness and ability to handle the mental aspects of your own ride/race. We did not really have time to stop and look at the views, per se, but the image we took away was one of gigantic Alpine beauty in the height of spring, though blocking some of the beauty was usually a competitor's wheel and more importantly, some of the wind.
At times on this trip, we have felt like the smallest team in the world: on the road constantly and living out of our car (ok, really a sweet RV) with only ourselves and limited resources to rely on. Not being able to connect with our health care community for an evaluation and treatment while rushing from event to event to compete and handle our race needs with a battered body was a tremendous strain on the team as a whole. When everything is going right and you can select a fresh front yard to ride from on a whim - it's hard to beat the RV. Though if you are for some reason in a bad space, it is more likely that living on the road will seem less than ideal.
One of the major drawbacks of being constantly on the move in unfamiliar surroundings is the lack of community to back us up when we really need the help. Luckily members of the bike community stepped up to help show us the way and transform the unknown into the familiar. HUGE thanks to the many special folks involved in helping us out with some difficult times this go round! We would not be where we are today without you or be looking forward to our next moves nearly as much.
Our final days in Europe were dedicated to getting me back on track to health and fitness while still attempting to taking advantage of being in the amazing Schladming area.
We started out for a night and ended up staying five at a particularly appealing Camping area, Camping Dashstein with its premier location for straight up charging. An ideal base camp for hiking, riding, skiing or climbing along with in-house Wifi, laundry, fresh bread and home laid eggs had us feeling right at home.
We have now made the move back to Massachusetts, where we will take a short break from the racing that we need to put in line the logistics that will ensure a smooth continuation of the season,
We are looking forward to spending a few days at home and hopeful to find some time to chisel away at that never ending 'to do' list before the next days of racing.
Here's to the journey!
Mike and Mary
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