To paraphrase Dan Atherton, I couldn’t wait to get school out of the way so I could get on with life, specifically racing and training full time.
I finished my Abitur (German High School finals) in May having half-heartedly prepared for both the exams and early season racing.
My first race was round one of the Bundesliga, Bad Säckingen, a technical course with little to no climbing. The signs were already there that something wasn’t right with my fitness. I couldn’t move up through the field and consequently finished outside the top 50.
At the end of April we drove 15 hours to Plymouth, England for round 2 of the British National series. This would be the one and only British Cycling XC race of the year for me as it was the only race with climbs. The course at Newnham Park was brilliant. It was technical, with natural features, drags and steep climbs. A proper old school course. Again, I had dead legs and was disappointed to miss out on the podium. Later we heard that this course had been part of the Grundig World Mountain Bike Series back in the day. We also found out later that the race organiser received over 200 complaints from participants about the course being “too difficult” and “too dangerous.”
Reactions from different sides prompted a heated debate in the British mountain bike scene for a few weeks. Newnham Park will not feature in the British Series for 2017. The ‘sport for all’ view currently holds sway in mountain bike racing in Britain.
A stinking cold laid me out for three weeks during my exams, my immune system had finally caved in. But my first race back was a biggy, the UCI World Junior Series in Albstadt, however the recent illness had left me with no chance of picking up points from the final row of the grid.
An introduction to a marathon racer
However, I’m sure that in time I will look back at Albstadt 2016 as a turning point because it’s when I met Juul van Loon and his Combi-Camp. Juul, a Dutch marathon specialist and sports journalist was working on an article about racing in a World Cup XCO race. We spent the evenings talking about racing and he convinced me to give marathons a try. He also introduced me to Pannenkoeken and Apelstroop, another life changing moment.
By June we were trying to remember a race in the dry. I’d put Maxxis Beavers on my race wheels in early April and hadn’t taken them off since. I raced in Gränichen, Switzerland at the beginning of June and it rained non-stop for two days.
At the end of June I did the UCI World Junior series in Heubach, Germany, and it rained non-stop for three days. I still hadn’t given marathon racing a go.
Having spent June racing and camping in the rain, my cold was back and I felt like crap. Just the right time to try my first ‘marathon’. Unfortunately, the rules don’t allow juniors to ride full distance marathons, we are limited to distances between 45km and 70km at the most. It was still raining on 3rd July when I met Juul in Wiesbaden for the marathon. Juul rode the ultra-distance and I did the most I was allowed (44km). Needless to say, given my poor health, it was a race I would rather forget. Juul rode like a beast and finished 4th, narrowly missing the podium.
I took a week off from training to try and find some fresh legs before the next marathon. I went to the Nordenau marathon, raced the 64km course and fell in love with marathon mountain bike racing. It was fantastic. It was exactly how I wanted mountain bike racing to be. Fast, technical, long climbs, beautiful scenery and long distances. It was, in short, mountain bike racing.
I won the junior race and finished 5th in the overall race. I was over the moon.
I was now looking for marathons. Next was the SKS Sauerland marathon in Grafschaft, an area I love racing in as it has long climbs. Juul and his Combi-Camp were with us again and we had a great weekend. There is nothing better than camping with friends at bike races.
I rode well, winning the junior and finishing third in the overall middle-distance race. A lack of experience cost me a shot at the win as I rode on the front too much.
Reflecting on 2016
My 2016 season finished on a high and a low. The low was being elbowed off my bike in the Jelenia Gora race, part of the UCI World Junior series. Despite the assault, I finished 7th and picked up my first ever UCI points. I was hitting some form, for the first time in the entire season.
From Poland, we travelled back to Germany for the final race of the season, a marathon with my two Dutch friends, Juul (van Loon) and Bart Classens. It was a chance to race against each for the first time as the race organiser had cancelled the full distance race. All the top riders were racing the 65km course.
It was super quick from the start and my legs felt great. I rode with the lead group in the early stages but again, a tactical mistake meant that I missed the attack by Sören Nissen and Bart. Our chasing group didn’t work well together but I was determined not to make the mistake of towing riders to the finish again for them to out sprint me. In the end I finished 7th in a strong elite field, I was first junior by some distance.
And there it is. 2016 was the year I finished school, picked up my first UCI points and discovered I loved racing mountain bike marathons. As Juul says, “marathons mean you can race your bike for longer in more beautiful places.” For me, it seems a purer form of racing. It’s closer to why we ride bikes in the first place.
I’ve shown myself that I have the physical capacity and the mentality for marathons. To prepare for my first year as an elite rider next year, my winter training now is all about getting my body to adapt to repeated long distance rides.
My first marathon of the 2017 season will be the Portugal Tour, racing as two-man team with Juul van Loon.