On the trail with Sabine Spitz

Catch her if you can

By Bjorn Haake

Sabine Spitz returned to the World Cup course in Offenburg, Germany, one week after the race to demonstrate how to ride descents that are virtually vertical. She showed just how a professional blasts around a technical course without fear.

Sabine Spitz and husband and manager Ralf Schäuble invited media members to a two-day event in Offenburg to get a feel for the skills required to ride a World Cup course. While the first day was focusing on a Q&A session, the duo had organised enough bikes so that everyone who wanted to try out the course (in perfect, sunny conditions!) was able to do so.

The course started innocently enough, with a paved uphill before heading onto an easy singletrack in the forest. But soon riders would have to make a decision on the "Dual Speed" section, with two options to get down a very steep part of the course, with several stair-step-like drops. Fortunately for the non-professionals, the lack of spectators offered a "Triple Speed" variant, with a wide switchback offering a safer alternative for the unskilled.

Spitz then demonstrated the section twice, both times in perfect control of her 7.5-kilogram machine. Part of the reason for the event was to give everyone a different perspective. At the races, everybody waits at the bottom of the sections to take pictures or cheer the riders on. "I want you to see the course from the reverse angle," Spitz explained the purpose of the shock that most felt when they arrived at the top, with no bottom in sight until they were almost already on the descent.

Still dazed by the demonstration, everybody headed on to the "Wolfsdrop". The group took a little shortcut to get there, as this one was technically not the next difficulty of the course (it is tackled after the North Shore and the World Class drop). Time for another round of "ahs", as most stopped before the really steep part. Not only was it steep, but full of roots, too. So a patient Spitz pointed out that "Here, I would approach it from the right hand side. There aren't any roots, so the bike doesn't bounce all over the place in the beginning of the section." This one is arguably the most difficult descent of the parcours.

Another important factor the German pointed out is speed. But it's not that a fast approach under the guideline of "Get it done and over with quickly" that will do the trick. "You have to enter the section slowly, get your heart rate down a bit, so you can fully concentrate on the technical section." Riding slower also means having more control over the bike and again, Spitz rode the section, with lots of cameras flashing.

The group headed back up, to get to the "World Class" drop. You really have to be world class, as this was the steepest section, a three-metre drop that is as close to vertical as it can get. Calmly approaching the top of it, Spitz had to make a 90 degree right turn on the gravel singletrack, before finding her line, which has changed over the years, due to the erosion created by the racers.

The "North Shore" was only glanced at from the top. During the World Cup race, this is the second of five very technical parts. It is not the most difficult, but it winds from the highest point of the course down, and Schäuble said, "It takes about a minute to get down." The racers use their momentum and skills to head down the very curvy part to descend as quickly as possible, while trying to minimize pedalling and recover a little bit.

From there, it was a short ride to the "Snake Pit". If there were actually soft snakes, it probably would be easier to ride down, but the solid roots across made it a tricky manoeuvre.

When a top-level athlete demonstrates those sections, they look easy enough, yet most of the group opted for the "chicken run," as Spitz smilingly called it. One brave soul tackled the bumpy part, and with both Spitz and Schäuble shouting instructions – "You are too far back, shift your weight further up front!" – the lone rider made it down on one of the five difficulties of the day, more or less in one piece.

Rolling back to the start-finish area there was a sense of admiration for a parcours that doesn't look nearly as technical on TV. Even Spitz admitted that she had to swallow the very first time she encountered the "Wolfsdrop" on the warm-up loop in her first appearance in Offenburg, but went on to overcome the initial fear by winning the race in 2004. She added, "It is a matter of practice. If you only ride easy stuff, you will not improve on those technical sections. You will have to do them over and over again, then you will be able to tackle them."

Read the complete feature including a conversation with Spitz about the upcoming World Championships, European Championships and Olympic Games.

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