When I set foot in Switzerland on the 19th June, I hadn’t been in Europe for over 6 years, I was meeting close friends and family I hadn’t seen for 10-15 years. My reasons for my trip to Europe were mainly sport related and I hadn’t really given it much thought that I was going to travel through countries where I had spent my childhood holidays, that I would be communicating in languages I used to speak fluently, and bring memories to the surface I had hidden away for so long. My mind got overloaded with a million impressions, past emotions turned into present thoughts, past experiences turned into new adventures. Driving through Italy on my way to Austria after a great week spent with the Xterra family especially brought up a whole lot of different feelings.
I was heading to Austria to race the Montafon Marathon, but not only that, I was going to catch up with my uncle and cousin who I had last seen in 1999. Without going into a whole lot of sad stories, my uncle was trying to restore the family bond with my sister and me, which my father had destroyed many years ago. Me coming to Europe was the perfect opportunity for him to put his words into actions and there was no escaping this man on a mission! Before I knew it my hotel was booked in a little place called Schrunz where the Montafon Marathon was held, and my uncle would be meeting me there together with my cousin during the week and stay to watch me race. The Montafon is an absolute stunning part of Austria, and the hotel my uncle picked was perfectly located, I had a few days to myself before they would show up and time to explore the beautiful trails of the Austrian Alps and make use of the sporting facilities they offered for free, including a beautifully located aquatic centre. Perfect spot for Xterra training and I carried through the relaxed attitude I had gained in Italy.
The last time I had seen my cousin he was a 9 year old boy, and when I opened my hotel room door after a happy knock, I looked into the face of a 26 yo man! funny how so many years had gone passed yet it immediately felt so familiar! I recognised his sense of humour, dry comments, and teasing habits. There was no doubt we were related! I was touched by my uncles efforts to fix something which wasn’t broken by him in the first place, but it became quite obvious I was there to be spoiled and after resisting it at the start, I gave in, typical Oostra stubbornness, there was no point in fighting his plans!!
Without knowing I had chosen to race a marathon which had previously been raced by two other marathonMTB team members in 2010 and 2011, which made it pretty cool. With roughly 2500m elevation over only 65kms, I was looking at a very tough day on the bike. I had two more Xterra’s to race after the Montafon, therefore the plan was to ride the race solid but not empty the bucket so I could train through the race with Xterra Czech planned two weeks after the Montafon. The MTB festival started with a type of MTB (male) crit race the evening of the pasta party the day before the race which caused for quite a spectacle in the otherwise sleepy town centre. I felt nervous not quite knowing what to expect for the race, but I was very much looking forward to it at the same time. Lining up at the start caused a bit of mayhem, as the females had to start 2min behind the males which not everybody was happy about! I looked around and it was a decent sized female field, much bigger than you will ever find in a hard race like this in Australia. I decided to line up at the front not really knowing where I belonged, the girls were very friendly and quickly I was engaged in cheerful chit chat, there were girls from all over Europe, Switzerland, a fellow Dutchi, Germany, France and of course Austria.
When the gun went off I somehow found myself in the lead after 5kms… mmm, not the way I had intended to race, so I dropped back and stayed with the first 5 girls, we were already wheeling in the back of the male field who had a 2min head start. I hang on till the climbing started and made the decision to stick to my race plan, and back off the fast pace and I started riding more comfortably. I felt good and I enjoyed being on bike. The first part of the race was roughly 2hrs of climbing, and I changed positions with another girl quite a bit, both of us still moving forward through the male field.
Once the downhill started I experienced what Imogen so funnily had described in one of her blogs as Euro bombing. For sure these people have a death wish, I have never seen anything like it, many of the guys I had passed on the uphill now came zooming passed me, utterly out of control, legs and arms waving everywhere, dodging cars, people and other riders in the process, I am still puzzled by the fact that they do manage to stay on their bikes. As another little group of guys flew passed I decided to go with them and although it was a lot of fun I hadn’t been that scared on a bike for a long time! I threw my legs out in corners, felt my back wheel slipping underneath me, left breaking till the last minute and I managed to stay with them , and as my confidence increased so did my speed.
But not for long, I didn’t quite make a corner and found myself heading towards a lovely groomed garden at seriously high speed, I jumped of the bike to avoid a major crash and fell into the lap of a roughly 70 yo gentleman who was enjoying the race from the comfort of his own backyard. Not anymore. Instead of getting angry, the people occupying the garden worked as a support team, and I was put on my bike pushed back on the course, with a power bar in my hand before I knew what had happened. This was all happening to the great amusement of one of the guys I was riding with and who waited for me to make sure I was alright, he was still laughing and shaking his head many km after the incident!! As we approached a technical section my fellow competitor told me to keep riding, I didn’t quite know what he meant until volunteers were yelling at me to slow down, yet my new made friend told me to keep going, you will be fine he said. It was too late for a change of plan when I saw I was heading towards a cliff at full noise without being able to see what was behind it, oh well I remember thinking, here I go, very grateful to be riding a dual suspension I managed to stay upright landing onto some serious rocks, tree roots, and who knows what else, yelling at riders who had gotten of their bikes, to get out of the way. I heard my friend laughing; I must have been great entertainment for him!! I almost felt like giving my Bianchi a pet, like you do with a horse when it saves you from a tricky situation!
With my body filled with adrenaline the fun was now over and the 2nd climb was about to start. Although I was still feeling great, it had become very hot and it seemed like a never ending ascent. A lot steeper than the first climb, many riders had blown and I was making great progress through the male field, still changing position all the time with what ended up being the 6th placed girl. The course was truly spectacular, the atmosphere very friendly, with supporters everywhere, cheering on the side of the little mountain roads. I was having a great day on the bike. I lost my new made downhill friend on the climbs only to be passed by him again on the final downhill. As he rode past he looked back, “come on” he yelled at me and I jumped on his wheel. The only thing left was a little bump to the finish, which after nearly 4hrs of uphill riding felt like a mountain. The race was over. Smiling faces everywhere, very bad loud music, beer, the sound of gazillion different languages blending into one, yes this was racing in Europe! I came in 7th placed female and I was stoked, it was great to finish a race with plenty left in the tank, yet feeling competitive at the same time.
Although I was very tempted to join the rest of the riders and enjoy the beer we were given at the finish line, my day wasn’t over yet, and I had to put my running shoes on for a 5km shuffle off the bike. My cousin came along for moral support which made a great ending to a solid training day. I had an awesome experience in Austria, and the presence of my uncle and cousin made it a very special one. I will definitely be back to race this one again, with a bit more practicing of the Euro bombing technique!