A month isn't a very long time in race season. It is hard to believe that Dan McConnell and I have already been on the road for four weeks, following the circus that is the mountain bike World Cup circuit. Ours days have been full with training, eating well and recovering, with some sightseeing thrown in for good measure. In fact, the days feel so full that I am not sure how I managed to fit work into my schedule back home. I'll tell you about our adventure so far.
South African cycling safari
As soon as we arrived in South Africa after our 16-hour flight from Melbourne, Australia, we sensed the difference in culture and lifestyle, with the segregation between rich and poor very obvious. However, we felt safe and found everyone to be pleasant and helpful. But we were intrigued how so many people could afford "Pimp my ride" vans with the most incredible paint work and shiny alloy wheels.
We stayed in a guest house called "A Room with a View" and that was certainly no understatement. The view of Pietermaritzberg was amazing from the manicured grounds of the house, which included a pool and tennis court enclosed by some particularly secure walls. The house also came with a maid called "Happy" who had the most gorgeous smile and looked after us exceptionally well. Initially, it felt awkward having someone make your bed, do your dishes, wash your clothes and do all the other domestic duties (although I have dreamt of it at home).
The days leading into the opening World Cup of the season were very relaxed, with shorter, sharper training sessions due the big volume from Terra Australis race the previous week. A trip to South Africa would not be complete without a safari tour, so fellow Aussies Andy, Rosie and Chris (who were staying next door) went sightseeing to Karkloof Falls and Tala Nature Reserve. Driving around the nature reserve was incredible. We saw animals like hippos, ostriches, giraffes, zebras, springboks, buffalos, warthogs and the impressively huge rhinos.
By Thursday, it was time to focus on the opening World Cup for 2009. The course was a hard packed, clay surface with a series of pinch climbs that looked treacherous if it were to rain. The races went well for both Dan and me, as we both secured top 40 start spots for round two in Offenburg, Germany. We made sure to have two berry shakes from the local café to celebrate.
Meeting the Big Fella and not forgetting the Little Fella
After an 11-hour flight to Frankfurt on the Tuesday morning following the South Africa race, we picked up the mini-van, our transportation and storage for six weeks in Europe. It is so ugly that it reminded us of a warthog and hence become its nickname. Our first stop in Europe was Korbach, which is a couple of hours north of Frankfurt and, most importantly, is one of the homes of Continental Tires.
Dan and I were keen to be shown around the Continental factory and get insight into the technical development and manufacturing of our bike tires. As a bonus, we got to meet the employees who are used in their ads and to do our own photo shoot with them to be used back home. We were so well looked after by everyone from Continental that it was difficult to leave. So we stayed one more night to go to the local bike park which happens to be one of Europe's best.
Our first race in Europe was a German Bundesliga round not too far from Stuttgart in Munsingen. It was here that teammate Cal Britten and his dad Trevor met up with us for Cal's second European race (see Cal Britten's recent diary entry). In true European fashion, we couldn't predict the weather conditions for the race. We started off on full wets and slowly progressed to full dry weather tires despite the constant interruptions of rain.
The fields were so deep with talent that it was like a mini-World Cup roll call. I was lucky enough to have a second-row start while there was confusion with Dan's seeding and he had to start in the back row. But this did enable him to pass exactly 100 riders throughout the race. Cal's Under 23 race was a separate race with over 100 starters.
All the Australians got together for dinner, plus some fellow Cyclingnews' diarists Mike Broderick and Mary McConneloug from the US. It is always great to have a touch of Australia where ever we travel.
The "tamer" Offenburg
In Offenburg for World Cup round two, our accommodation was set amongst the vineyards and orchards which contribute to the local wines and fiery Schnapps. We were also set in the shadow of the local Schloss (castle) Staufenberg. This year, the course was significantly different from previous encounters. It was much drier than we had previously experienced, which made the technical descents much easier to negotiate and the whole course so much faster.
That made the race more of a test of fitness than technical prowess. It also must have been one of the biggest Aussie assaults on a European World Cup in years with 27 of us competing in the various classes.
The crowd was simply inspiring with over 20,000 in attendance and they all contributed to improved results for us from previous years. It was a great introduction to World Cup racing for Cal.
The "Classic" Race - Houffalize
The transfer to Houffalize in Belgium was a tame three-and-a-half hour drive. Again we stayed in a very accommodating farm house just outside of town. Our bike sponsor GT had contacted us during the week to invite us for some VIP treatment for this round. We were hooked up with their mechanic, Mark, and his trusty companions Guzzi and Steve. While our support is always strong wherever we travel, Mark took it to a new level. Our bikes appreciated the attention, and we loved the ease of preparation for this round of the World Cup. It also enabled us to sit back and enjoy the custard tucker of the local patisseries.
Again, the weather was outstanding and belittled the impression that Europe is a cold, wet and muddy experience. For a small town, Houffalize really put it on. Big crowds, a great course and fast racing for the 18th time is truly world-class and THE classic mountain bike race.
We headed next to the United Kingdom to meet the founder of Torq Nutrition, Matt Hart and race the British National Series in Dalby Forest, Yorkshire. After a trip back to Germany for the next Bundesliga, we're off to the Madrid World Cup this weekend.
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The only UCI-registered mountain bike team in Australia, the TORQ Performance Nutrition team features some of Australia's top racers and future stars, including current national and Oceania Champion Dan McConnell
For 2011-2012, TORQ racers are targeting the Australian Mountain Bike National Series, National Championships and Oceania Continental Championships. The team's top priority is racing Olympic distance cross country events, but it is also mixing things up with some short track, marathon and endurance events - and maybe even some road races.
Some members will head abroad for the World Cups - an important part of Australian national team selection process for the 2011 World Championships. In the past two years, the team has grown to include some new faces with some great results to back them up.
McConnell, who represented Australia at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, is perhaps the team's most well-known member. Mark Fenner, Brenton Jones, Mark Tupalski, Luke Fetch, Robbie Hucker, Jenni King, Katherine O'Shea, Joanna Wall and Becky Mates are also on the roster. Members take turns writing diary entries.
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