“I will not rest until I sip cappuccino in starting block A”
This was a strong statement, delivered by a friend I made at my first mountain bike stage race, the 2008 Transalp. Thomas Dooley had uttered the sentence with the mix of determination and irony that I would come to learn typified his personality.
But there was something in it. Starting block A, the front of the start chute at a major marathon or stage race, sits beyond the realms of most riders. It is rarified air, behind the cordoned off area reserved for the fast, the lithe, the heroes of the daily battles. At the time, we waited lining up for block B. We waited in the cold, gambling on a delicate balance of clothing for staying warm before the start, but knowing we need to pocket what we will have to discard as the pace and temperature increases after we start. We line up for even half an hour before the block opens, which is an hour before the race starts. In short, we invest time and energy into waiting, when we could just be better riders and have a sleep in, rolling into block A with a nonchalance carried by champions and mountain bike heroes alike. We all yearned to be in starting block A.
Racing Transalp in 2008 was a baptism of fire for stage racing. I paired up with Scott Cornish, after a chance encounter on the Singletrack forum. I had moved to the UK for a working holiday, and while I enjoyed a few European marathon races in 2007, a broken collarbone in Autumn, and a shift to the ‘working’ part had taken racing off the agenda for a much of the start of 2008.
The route was long about 660km, taking in 21640m of climbing. It was hard, and Scott and I fought hard to finish inside the top 40 in the open men’s category, while the Bulls lead the charge. Top XC riders like Pia Sundstedt and Alison Sydor lead the women’s race – and for a few days we ate strudel at every meal. It was tough, it was beautiful – and I loved it.
Part way into the race I met Thomas Dooley and his US team mate Mike Hogan. These guys were racing in the Masters category, and were no slouches on the bike. We saw each other a lot on many stages, and on the stage to Naturns, we rolled turns on the over-crowded bike path, sharing tales once at the finish.
Dooley’s determination was obvious – he wanted to get into starting block A. Alas, neither of our teams moved into the positions within our category that would allow it.
Trans Germany 2009 – a taste of starting block A
In my second stage race of the 2009 season, I lined up in predominantly white kit at a very wet Trans Germany, then a 7 day race from west to east. A solo only event, the pace was on every day, but on the third last day, my stage finishes were managing to get better, and enough people ahead had dropped out, that I would start the final two stages in block A.
My star had risen.
As was my custom, I had been staying in the ‘bikers camp’. It isn’t that bad if you are travelling and racing on a budget, and under 30. I was all those things.
Still, the chance for more sleep would be good – and that is exactly what I got with a shift to block A. From 2005 until 2012 I raced on Scott Bikes, and they also sponsored the Trans Germany race. So although I rolled down to the start after fudging a warm up, with about 30 minutes to spare, I saw an empty start area, and block B was so full it was almost exploding. The tape was close to splitting trying to keep countless amateurs like myself at bay. I was a lucky one – I’d made it through to block A.
I knew I couldn’t actually take a coffee into block A (I can’t imagine a German bakery understanding the concept of a takeaway, or at least my request in English), but I did manage to order one with the few euros I had kept in my pocket. I knew Thomas wouldn’t want it any other way.
About 7 minutes later my coffee was finished, and I still had a lot of time. I rode past the start block a few more times and checked my number truly was on the A3 print out for riders in Block A.
The reality of Block A for Block B riders
In the end I was the first rider in, and waited sheepishly at the side. I knew I was an impostor. An also-ran who had crossed the line drawn below the 40th ranked rider, by chance of a couple of DNFs of better riders. But I was there, destined to make the most of it. And I did, for at least a few minutes before being overtaken by those in B block behind me minutes after the gun went off.
But the taste of Block A stuck. As a middling amateur racer, I always search for ways to feel like I’m a better rider than I am. And starting in Block A was one of them. This brief taste in Germany left me wanting more.
Reality struck many more times that season, no more so than starting back with the Mexicans at the World Champs, behind a sea of Austrians.
Block A has a lot to do with confidence. You need to feel like you belong. Everyone is nervous – it is a bike race after all. I’ve been in and out of Block A on countless occasions since then. I’ve had advice from others on how best to use the advantage, and I have seen the advantage slip away just as often as I have been able to use the advice.
But the exhilaration remains, when you’re invited into the front start box, or the front line, of a major race. To me it feels like you’ve made it, that the sacrifice was worth it, that you havce been accepted, and your results have been improving enough that you are allowed into the privileged area at the front of the bike race. And that feeling is the lasting effect – it is motivating. And while there are hours, days and even weeks to train now ahead of major goals for 2017, a lot of that is going to be spent trying to get to the front group of the race for before it starts. If only so I have time for a cappuccino and can have someone else can carry my jacket.