Whenever I chat to bike racers who are ready to step away from competition there’s always one aspect of racing that has particularly turned them off the lifestyle. It’s not the sacrifices, the diet, or the training. It’s not the nerves, the uncertainty, or the agony of racing… Nope, it’s the waiting. Days spent in hotel rooms or in the passenger seat of cars. Sleepless nights. Startline countdowns. I got a real taste of the intensely boring, slow, and frustrating waiting that’s part and parcel of competition the week before Worlds. I wasn’t fretful or obsessive or sleepless at all, but I sure was ready for the damned race to be over so I could be released from the inching and listless inactivity of the final taper.
I spent a week in Laissac, France, in gorgeous countryside, just waiting for the 70km, 2,600vm World Champs, held last Sunday morning on 26 June, 2016.
Race day eventually came, but after reaching the event village at 6:45am, I was greeted with yet another wait. Mike had tonnes to do before we got underway at 8:20 and the place was eerily deserted. It was far too early to warm up so I sat in the car in my trackpants and fiddled with my phone. All I wanted was that the whole thing be over so I could get back to being myself again. Sitting around doesn’t suit me.
At last riders started to appear, then some familiar and very welcome faces of the other women on the Aussie team. Suddenly it was time to warm up, too, and I whipped off the trackies and jumped on the bike, before returning to the car 30 seconds later for a vest and a snack. It was about 12 degrees and breakfast had been very early in our household!
At 7:57 I finished warming up, removed my jacket, loaded my pockets, gave Mike a kiss goodbye and headed to the start line. The mood in the corral was surprisingly light – I’ve seen much more serious faces at Aussie National rounds. Jolanda Neff bounced past me and gave a Swiss friend a hug. Langvad shrugged and grinned when she got in trouble from the commissaires for sitting on the rollers too long at her call up. People were waving at family members and chatting. I smiled and felt content, and not too nervous – finally this thing was getting started!
Ready, set, go!
Being gridded on the back row was always going to be hard, and I was a bit scared of the pace off the start, and even of potential crashes as we snaked through a couple of barricaded S-bends. I was pretty surprised that the start pace was completely manageable and that, after a corner or two, I was able to take an outside line and accelerate forward in the pack. There were a few tyre buzzes and handlebar jabs – none of them affecting me – plus the usual tsking and hoi hoi-ing and nein-ing you’d expect in this situation, but I just ignored any silliness and held my line. Once we hit the dirt 500m in I moved into a few gaps that opened up as we struck enormous potholes at speed and women got pinged about. By the time we got onto the real climb I was somewhere in the high 20s, I’d say, and the pace was really hot – I could do it, sure, but how anaerobic should I go?
Not much at all was my plan, and I forced myself to let a gap to the top 25 or 30 emerge. We rode doubletrack, then the trail became increasingly technical, and I made up some spots. Soon we were snaking up a full-blown technical climb with a narrow muddy line flanked by treacherous ditches on each side, criss-crossing up a severely eroded and boggy hill. If one thing is missing from nearly all marathons in the world it’s technical climbing – my favourite kind of climbing! I was able to relax my upper body and keep my efforts under control but still stay in touch with the riders in front, even reeling them in when they made little mistakes. I watched them closely – a German, a Latvian, a Russian (in a skinsuit with no pockets!) and two Spanish girls. I got a feel for their skills and fitness, trying to work out if and when I should try to pass them.
I passed a couple of them and settled in behind the German right as we dove into the first major descent of the day, and realised my mistake within two metres. She was just too slow downhill. I asked to pass but it was no good – I could hear her saying something and getting stressed out, and the Spanish girl who had caught up to my wheel wasn’t helping matters by getting rather tetchy and vocal herself. The poor German girl did her best but there was no overtaking and it was steep and treacherous. By the time we reached the end of the descent there were five or so girls on my wheel and I was a bit pissed off.
The mechanical that wasn’t
I was in a bit of a pickle. The German girl was a superb climber and this brought about a difficult dynamic. I could climb with her, and we pulled away from the girls that had caught up, but I couldn’t drop her without going harder than my plan, so each time we reached a tiny summit I had to burn a match to accelerate past her and get into the singletrack first. Then she’d catch and overtake me again on the next open climb, and I’d burn another match at the next mini summit.
Furthermore, my rear wheel had started making an alarming plinkety sound that is almost universally recognisable as the noise of a broken spoke.
Suddenly feedzone one appeared, sooner than expected (my Garmin had been pausing a lot), so I made the split-second decision just to swap the wheel (perhaps I’d become understandably paranoid about mechanicals). Mike literally leaped into action. According to my Garmin, Mike effected a clutch + thru axle rear wheel change that would be the envy of many World Cup mechanics in just 44 seconds, during which time I took a gel and drank some fluid, and tried to explain the noise and the problem in fervent bursts. I was aware of several flag-coloured shapes whizzing past behind me, and my heart broke a bit, but lifted again when I passed my parents, plus a bunch of randoms they’d somehow recruited to cheer ‘Imo!’ at the end of the zone. I felt like saying ‘I was much further up until just now!’ but it was all a blur and suddenly over, and I had some chasing to do.
Glory be another technical climb! I had to stop to adjust my brakes, but soon caught up to a Croatian, who didn’t seem to realise that my rightful place was in front of her and blocked me annoyingly, but I soon dispatched her, plus one of scores of Spanish girls, let’s call her España 6. (The Spanish contingent at the race was quite astounding, and the effect was like battling a national hyrda: the second I slew one, ten more seemed to pop up in the distance.) I carried on chasing, passing another couple of Españas (5 and 4), until eventually I was back with my sweet-natured German climber and discovered that, having shouted ‘no worries’ to her earlier when she was under pressure on the descents, we’d become friends. She started pulling over before the downhills to let me past. I could tell she was also working hard on the climbs – harder than me – and took note for later.
At about this point we were approaching feedzone 2 and I felt a change in the air – something elemental, like a storm coming. Sure enough, in a wave of muscle and energy, the top two elite men passed me. It’s hard to explain the force of their passage through trail. These men are huge and move forward with an impetus that’s almost mythical, almost frightening. I was relieved that at precisely this point the women and men’s courses split, with the men doing an extra 20km loop – I didn’t mind getting passed by these gods on a forest road, but in the singletrack it would be challenging.
Between feedzones 2 and 4 there was a lot of amazing technical riding, including some world-class singletrack with berms and jumps, all in the deepest darkest woods. I lost a bit of time when the plinkety sound (almost universally recognisable as a broken spoke) returned and I realised that I had some other problem. I did what I should have done earlier in the race and simply pulled over to examine my bike, losing another place to yet another España girl. I could find nothing wrong. Later, after riding a techy descent too slow because my bike sounded like it was breaking, I suddenly realised what it was. My cable end was bent into my spokes! The least mechanical of any mechanical and I’d lost a bunch of time, a lighter wheel, and I felt really, really stupid. I went through feedzone 3 shaking my head, but my parents and Mike were there again and I’d moved most of the way back up, so put my mistake behind me and settled in for the middle bit.
Nothing much changed during this next period. I passed a couple of unfortunate riders with mechanicals (including the amazing Fanny Bourdon) and gave my sympathies. My plan was to wait until the 40km mark then light the burners and give the last 30km everything I had. Unfortunately others must have lit their burners earlier because suddenly I had been dropped by the sweet German and had half the European Union on my wheel. Fanny Bourdon had caught up and passed me, a Czech was following me down the descents, waiting for her moment, and I got the sense that if I didn’t get a move on I’d land on a snake and take a huge slide down the rankings. I was also well and truly frustrated with the dawdling, leisurely pace that I was forcing myself to take to stay in the heartrate zone that I knew I could safely maintain.
Time to go
Halleluiah! The sign! ‘Arrivee 30km’. At this moment the course crossed a muddy ditch and started an easy 3km climb I’d practised during the week. The ditch was like a new startline. I locked my fork out, dumped the gears, jumped out of the saddle and lit it up. I immediately dropped the European Union, soon caught and passed my German friend, then rode up to the Russian skinsuit who was being mightily screamed at by her support guy in the feedzones, and who I hadn’t seen since my wheel change. She wasn’t pleased about being passed (no doubt afraid of being yelled at), but in doubletrack she had little choice. I put in a final effort up the last pinch, emerging between hedgerows at the top with nobody in sight. I took the fire road descent so hard that everything went completely blurry with vibrations and rocks flew into the trees. I never saw those girls again.
Into feedzone 5 I was catching Fanny, and I passed her when she stopped for a bidon. At this point there was some techy, muddy forest and one massive climb remaining – the climb of the day, really, a 4 to 5 kilometre beast of steep, grinding forest road that turned into hot, relentless tussocky paddock and where I planned (as did everyone else) to make myself suffer. I rode up to España 3, who was completely blown and making whimpering sounds, and passed her, then, after mashing my pedals for what felt like an hour, I made out a group of four in the distance, including España 2, a Latvian, perhaps, and two others. Tearful French men were yelling at me to get onto the group, but it was no use. It was like we were all fixed to a conveyor belt that was turned by our pedal strokes, all suffering but neither distancing nor approaching one another. And the top never came. Every time I saw a group of spectators camped on the side of the track I thought ‘this is it’, but every time it wasn’t. After all that dilly-dallying to save my legs I was really hurting now, riding at my threshold heartrate after nearly four hours and suffering every pedal stroke with cramps (I never cramp), nausea, and Plain Old Pain.
Finally, finally we were into an awful rough piece of techy, rocky, narrow, bumpy, fresh-cut singletrack under a hedge or something, then feedzone 6. I still had half a bidon and plenty of gels so I burned right through. 25-minutes more riding, and most of it downhill. I went full risk downhill, sorely aware that Fanny Bourdon descends like a pterodactyl and would catch me easily if I so much as feathered the brakes. Of course there were still a few climbs – nasty pinches. On the last couple I instructed myself to blow Imo apart, to go VO2 and just explode, but nothing more would come out of my legs, which cramped so badly once that I fell over sideways into a muddy bog in front of a confused crowd. When the forest opened out on the very last climb I could see I was about a minute behind España 2 and her Latvian companion (the other two had disappeared ahead), and Fanny about the same distance behind me. With 4km to go I judged this wouldn’t change, but I wouldn’t relax, either.
There followed a bit more technical descending through porridgey mud. I stuffed up this final descent, missing a great line as I lost focus being passed by the lead-out motos for the men. I looked behind me, expecting a tsunami of muscle to come bearing down the hill. There was nobody there, but I had to unclip and scoot. Finally emerging, I only had three kilometres or so of flattish time trial to go. I went as hard as I could (I’m a lousy time trialler), looking behind me again and again – motos? Fanny Bourdon? The men? Who would catch me first?
It turned out to be the men – the top two in the final kilometre. Still I kept checking behind me but nobody else appeared. I went over a last jump with just 100 metres to go and realised I’d made it. I let out a sob, high-fived the crowds on the barricades like they do on TV, and crossed the line, straight into Mike’s arms where I sobbed with happiness just that it was all over, and that I’d ridden a good race. My parents, oblivious to UCI VIP zone requirements, strolled into the finish chute past baffled commissaires and told me I was 20th. I could hardly believe it.
Final thoughts on the 2016 UCI XCM World Championship
A few things to mention. One is that French crowds really are some of the best on earth. I wish we could create race atmospheres like that in Australia – crowd support is really uplifting and makes a huge difference – I just love racing in Europe for that.
Another is that the competitive atmosphere was really friendly and supportive – something I hadn’t expected, but which bears mentioning because it reinforces that all the raceface nonsense people sometimes go on with is quite ridiculous. I loved that, even at the very highest level, it was still possible to have fun and be kind. Thanks to my German, Lithuanian, and French friends for that.
Another is that my family made the trip across the world to watch me and gave the race just as much as I did, in their own special way, and another is that Mike and Ed, Jenni King’s partner, were just incredible in the feedzones – just amazing. Thanks guys, it meant so much to me.
The last thing is that I really am proud. From about the 7km mark the only people who passed me were two ladies who’d been much faster and had mechanicals, and women who passed when I was stopped, most of whom I caught again.
Because all courses are different and all races have different numbers of competitors, the best way to measure performance is by calculating how far off the winner you are as a percentage of their time. I was 31 minutes behind Jolanda Neff, in 4:27. In both time and percentage of winning time, as far as I know my result is the closest an Australian woman has ever come to the winner at any XCM World Champs – and I’m happy with that.
I can already see heaps of room to improve, though, and I’m hoping I get another chance to test myself against the best in the world next year.