In the build up to the race, most of the talk has been of the unseasonably cold, wet weather sweeping Europe and whether it was likely that the 2000m roof of the race would even be accessible. Amongst the group of three of us travelling together from the UK, emails and texts were nervously exchanged including links to the Planai ski station webcam in what can only be described as a blizzard.
The other focus pre-race has been the extremely competitive start list attending this year’s race. Notable participants include a number of Belgian cyclocross teams including Telnet-Fidea, AA Sport Drinks and Style & Concept. Between them, and Helen Wyman racing for the Kona team, I count four cyclocross world cup race winners, but my maths may be faulty! There are some significant stalwarts of the European marathon scene too, including Thomas Dietsch, Urs Huber and Simon Stiebjahn of Team Bulls, former European marathon champ Alexey Medvedev, the evergreen Bart Brentjens racing the elite masters category, and former Croc Trophy winner Jeroen Boelen. There is also a notable North American contingent with Spencer Paxson, Kris Sneddon and Barry Wicks all over to fly the flag for Kona.
So it was this morning that around 500 slightly nervous, rather damp competitors gathered at the bottom of the Planai Ski Station lift waiting for the neutralised start. The organisation promised that there was minimal snow on course, although a quick check of the tops of the mountains told us there would be rather a lot nearby. At 10am, the processional roll-out started with 3km of neutralised tarmac start. Well, as neutralised as any of these things ever are – with one start time for all categories there was the usual jockeying for position, and a few sketchy moments, but to my knowledge everyone stayed upright.
The race proper began on a turning, straight uphill, as would only be right for a race with such a hallowed history, and a density of climbing, the pace picking up as the morning rain failed to dampen spirits. Shortly after this, I proved my total lack of elite credentials becoming detached from the back of the group, so I’m afraid the remainder of my report will be anecdotal with regard to the front of the race. A short descent dropped us back into the outskirts of Schladming before the serious climbing began, with 1000m in one big slice. As we climbed higher, the rain turned to sleet and then snow. A slightly soul-destroying push up a wall of grass complete with freezing wind and more snow, and we were at the top. The descent had many people shaking their hands; in fact some of us were so excited by the prospect of being able to climb and warm up, we decided to go the wrong way.
Some cursing in a host of languages later, we were back on course, and cold again! The second climb to Hochwurzen helped us all fight the chill, if not the creeping tiredness showing in most people’s pedal strokes. The top of this climb was like riding through a Christmas card, with thicker layers of snow on the ground and coating the trees. A fantastically fun, ice-cream headache inducing descent dropped us back towards Schladming, with only a short climb to take us to the top of the Planai downhill track (one we’ll get to know well over the coming days). The stage was won in a super-fast 3h13m by Kristian Hynek, who averaged over 20kmph in blizzard conditions. Topeak-Ergon stalwart Alban Lakata showed he is a strong man for cold conditions (perhaps the ski-touring has helped?!) finishing two minutes adrift and ahead of Jiri Novak. Sadly current world champ Ilias Periklis DNFed, Sally Bigham won the women’s race by over 6 minutes from Topeak-Ergon team mate Milena Landtwing, setting her up well to defend her title won last year.
Tomorrow brings the dreaded uphill time trial, 15km, 1100m of elevation. But at least there is no descending, except by cable car, so we are more or less guaranteed to retain feeling in our extremities. Whether or not we will want to is a different matter.