If you’re an antipodean coming to Europe to race for the first time like Imogen Smith, you’re probably prepared for big hills, dramatic landscapes, and hard racing.
But here’s a few things Imo picked up that you can’t prepare for…
The way Euros descend on gravel is so distinctive there’s actually a special name for it. Basically, if you’re barrelling down a -15% gravel switchback descent completely out of control, changing lines with no regard for your safety or anyone else’s, preferably cutting off your opponents, you’re Eurobombing. And there’s no escaping it – it’s a matter of do or have done to you. The best advice I’ve had was to pretend like you’re skiing and steer with your feet. The thing that’s worked best for me so far, however, is to pretend I’m a puppet and go completely limp – and that includes my brake fingers. Don’t be afraid to unclip and don’t be afraid to slide. Most of all, don’t try to stay in control. You’re not Eurobombing if you can steer.
Which brings me to the all-around Euro attitude to excavation, barriers, motor vehicles, and oil spills…
2. Health and safety
3. Techno… yes!
There’s definitely been a soundtrack to my trip, and it’s one that I really hope I will forget. Although it hasn’t combined well with jetlag… If you’re Euro, it’s okay to like techno: Bad songs that were bad in the 1990s remixed with an uplifting synth beat. Leave your shame at the airport and embrace the rhythm!
In Australia it’s never hard to tell the difference between a serious racer and someone who’s in it for the challenge – you just have to read the outfit, because very few Aussie men are going to dress up in skin-tight lycra and shave their legs unless they’re racing for more than sheep stations. The Euros are so comfortable with their masculinity that an oiled up full-body shave down is standard for the weekend rider. Whether it’s the mountain air or the bike-loving culture, the weekend rider is at another level altogether anyway. At sign-on for the Dolomiti Superbike there were hundreds, hundreds of identical Italian men – tanned, hairless, immaculately kitted out, limbs laced with pythonesque veins – it was impossible to tell who was a pro and who wasn’t. Except for one distinctive feature…
The bigger the better. Nothing to be ashamed of:
6. You’re always speaking the wrong language
The SüdTirol has changed hands between various incarnations of Austria, Germany, and Italy over thousands of years, and its loyalties are as complex as its history. I thought I was doing pretty well by trying to speak some patchy Italian, only to be responded to in German. When I tried English I would get Italian, and round and round we went.
I’d like to say that the best language is a smile and a laugh, but that’s bollocks, too. Smiling and laughing makes you look silly when you are trying to find a flushing toilet. It’s been worst on the bike. The only thing I’ve understood so far was when a pro shouted ‘Achtung!’ at me, which, on the bike, translates to ‘get the f$%k out of the way before you kill us both!’. So far I’ve either sat behind people for far too long, taken dodgy and exhausting lines around them, or cleared my throat loudly in the hope that they’d move over when I’ve needed to call track. I’ve not yet resorted to ‘Achtung!’.
Is a goopy substance at least a foot deep and preferably mixed with the manure of some farm animal or other (doesn’t really matter which, as long as it’s not goat). What we would normally call mud, the euros call the ground.
8. Weather. Or not
I got to know some English people, and if there’s one thing the English know, it’s the weather. They helped me recalibrate my internal thermometer to cope better with alpine conditions. Managing the change from the subtropics to the high Alps is not a matter of clothing or fortitude, I discovered, but of semantics.
Hot – above 20 degrees. Remove shirt and complain
Warm – above 14 degrees. Complain but retain shirt
Nice – 14-10 degrees with a slight breeze. Ride for 9 hours
Cool – 10-8 degrees. Put on armwarmers. Leave jersey unzipped
Chilly – 6-2 degrees. Zip up jersey
Cold – 2 degrees and below, raining and snowing. Add booties. Gloves optional.
I also learned about a new type of rain called hot-rain. That is, rain above 12 degrees that makes you HARD. I don’t yet know what cold rain does to you.
If I had to recalibrate my assessment of the weather I’ve also had to adjust how I read Euro emotion. When I turned up to sign on for the Dolomiti Supernbike with an MTBA licence and a printed receipt as evidence of my recent renewal I was greeted with cries of protest ‘non e possible!’ ‘Aie, aie, aie!’, my licence was slapped, thrown, spat on, and ground into the floor, then returned to me with my race pack. Mike encountered a Europunter who was so incensed by his request to get by that he took both hands off the handlebars to remonstrate. Apparently, it was too dangerous to call track at that particular moment.
10. Food culture
There have been times racing at home when a dropped bottle has been the end of a race for me – dehydration and a lonely ride to the finish line. In Europe there are so many feed zones that you’ve barely swallowed the strudel you picked up at the last one before you’re being offered black forest torte at the next. Euro feedzones are situated in lonely hill towns, so you don’t just pass through, you roll into a festival; you’re swamped. I’ve been offered cups of coke by multilingual five-year-olds and an octogenarian gentleman refilled my bidon for me when my hands shook too much to take the lid off. Everyone is involved, excited, and desperate to help stuff you with regional specialties.
It’s been a bit of culture shock, but I’ve been practicing my Eurobombing, ridden some hot-rain, and although I’m yet to buy a bumbag, the techno is growing on me. Plenty of time to practice my Euroskills as I head to Craft Bike Transalp in Mittenwald tomorrow!