Salamina. A little island only a short ferry’s hop from Greece’s capital Athens. It’s not at the top of the list when people choose Greek Islands for their holidays, but it was our destination for the sole reason of mountain biking. The Hellas Salamina spring series provide an early opportunity for racers to hone their fitness in the lead up to the Rio Olympic games. I did not travel with the hope of going to the Olympics, but simply to gain some more UCI racing experience, and hopefully top up my pile of points to help me out later in the year. The Olympics is a big deal, though, and it really boosted the field that had also travelled to Greece.
Getting to the races from Athens was really straightforward. A short drive along the coast from the airport past the huge port of Pireaus, and then a 15-minute ferry ride to the town of Paloukia and you’re on the Island. Forget the picture-postcard Greek island that you’re imaging though; Salamina is a little more down to earth. Belying the poor economic conditions here, there’s lots of run down houses and broken roads, and the occasional pack of feral dogs on the street. But in between there are local bakeries and tavernas serving up Souvlaki (grilled pork) and the distinct bitter coffee that Greece is known for.
The island was hosting a four-week block of racing, and plenty of European national teams had come along for a training- and racing camp. The Greek team, as expected were represented well, but Denmark, Slovakia, Ukraine, Norway, Portugal, and Kazakhstan were also heavily represented. I was joined by the only other Brit in the race Jason Boutell, and both of us ranked near the back of the field on the start sheet. The racing was classified as a UCI S1 race, meaning there were lots of points on the line, but only at the end of the three days of racing.
The race took place in the tiny village of Kanakia. As we drove over to the village, we could see singletrack snaking off into the trees, and suddenly I understood why we came here. The village is just a couple of streets wide, with one beautiful beachfront café that serves as race HQ. With the aqua blue Mediterranean lapping at the shore, it seemed an unlikely place for some of Europe’s fastest to be gathering.
Having just got to Greece, it being my first euro stage race, and being a time trial, stage one proved to be difficult: I would be racing blind. From the beach, the 9-km time trial course climbed steeply on an old jeep trail around the coast, gaining the ridge and continuing towards the radio towers at the top. Crossing the single lane road, it then hit mind bendingly steep grades to the top of the hill, before dropping into the finish on a short sharp descent.
I pushed as hard as I could possibly imagine. Coming from altitude in Colorado, my power numbers in the thick oxygenated sea-level air seemed crazy high, and coming across the line I was happy with my ride. I didn’t see results until a little later that evening, but I’d moved from 46th on the rankings to 32nd on the results. Starting just in front of me, young Dane Simon Andreessen had the ride of the day, starting unranked and finishing in the top 5. The Bianchi Countervail team also had a good showing, placing their new signing Stephane Tempier near the front.
Stage 1 of the Hellas #Salamina stage race was a 30 minute time trial up a big climb from the coast of the island. Being the first race of the year, my first euro xc race, and a time trial, I felt entirely blind going into it. Coming out at the top without any idea how I finished didn’t help. I ended up 34th, so a good few places higher than my start position, but I know I can improve on that today. I’ll have a little more to go on today: short lap xco style racing with some of the fastest people in the world. Game time. #ridewithbcs #ingreece #timetrial #mountainbikes #xco #sealevel
Day Two – Going the (Olympic) distance in Greece
Day two of the Hellas Salamina was the XCO. A proper Olympic style XC course had been laid out on the outside of the village, using the old goat tracks to great effect. The start raced across the beachfront and then climbed on a mix of loose gravel road and singletrack to the top of the climb. The downhill plummeted on fun, swoopy tree lined trail back to the beach. The descent was a revelation, having raced plenty of XC courses that take the fire-road option back down. In fact, many people were surprised to see such fun trail in a European race.
The racing was hard and fast from the gun. Unlike in the US, everyone was sure of themselves on the startline, and gaining places proved difficult. I filtered into the singletrack in about the same position as I started, and got caught in the inevitable bike-walk that always happens in these races. From then on it was a seven-lap race of attrition. I didn’t get anywhere close to the front, but Jason Boutell just in front of me provided the motivation to keep plugging to the end. I got more and more confident on the way down each lap, finally feeling like I was getting used to the idea of mountain biking again after a snowy winter in Colorado. With overall placing determined by time, I battled until the very end hoping that some extra seconds in the bank would prove useful.
I was happy to finish on the lead lap in the XC. David Rosa of Portugal, Alexander Gehbauer of Austria and Stephane Tempier did battle at the front, all names that would be expected at the front of a World Cup. To be 12 minutes down on them actually reassured me that I’m fit enough to be competitive.
Stage Three – Point to Point
Stage three took us to the town of Eantio, just on the other side of the hill from Kanakia. Here we’d start a 37-km “point to point” stage, which was actually one big loop of fun trails. Climbing out of the village on a cart track, we gained close to 300 metres in the first 15 minutes. I started much better than the day before, relishing the slightly longer climbs compared to the XC course. I found myself riding alongside Rotem Ishay (Israel, riding for Jamis bikes) and Benjamin Sonntag (Germany, riding for Clifbar) on the second climb. We represented three nationalities, but have the common connection of all living, and racing together regularly, in Colorado. Rotem is on the hunt for UCI points to get to Rio, and judging by his lean figure here, he’s definitely motivated.
The trio quickly fell apart as they both dropped me on the next descent. A tactical error on my part had me at the back of the group going into the singletrack, and they were nowhere to be seen coming out the other end. From here we revisited the same climb used in the time trial on Friday, gaining the ridgeline before dropping back to the finish in Eantio on amazing trails. There must be an underground mountain bike culture on the island, as the trails are well built and looked after, and give you just the right amount of reward to alleviate the suffering from the previous climb. I came across the line with Guy Niv, from the Israel National Team, and gained enough time to move up to 32nd on the General Classification. That was exactly what I’d come for: some more UCI points, and an experience of racing a truly international strength field.
Although I didn’t see much of the front of the field, it was still an awesome opportunity to line up with the best and test myself this year. After speaking to other racers who have been on the European circuit for a few years, the competition this year is an obvious step up, and it will be a great year to watch leading up to Rio.